Perhaps I should start by saying outright that Columbia University Press' publicity department sent me a copy of this book. There, is everyone happy?
The book in question is The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control, by Ted Striphas, who is Assistant Prof in the Dept of Communication and Culture and adjunct prof in American Studies at Indiana University. He also blogs about the issue he raises in the book here. (Points to Striphas for linking from his faculty page to his publisher's page rather than Amazon...) The book got a nice bump in attention when it was reviewed by publishing gadfly Richard Nash in The Critical Flame (an online literary journal started by Daniel Pritchard of publisher David Godine, blogger of The Wooden Spoon (where he's been posting a lot lately, and good stuff, too), and others). Okay, I think credit and links where such things are due are done.
The book is a pretty great read for all of us publishing / book nerds. Striphas takes us on quite a rollicking ride, from faux books to decorate shelves in the 1930s, as having books became a symbol of middle class identity, to very public controversies around Oprah's book club - James Frey, Jonathan Franzen, et al - to Amazon warehouses to the creation of the ISBN... it's all here, and it generally comes together. I applaud him being thorough even if it left the book not as much a page-turner in certain sections, but I don't go far enough to agree with Nash when he suggests frustration in referring to this book being "very much a university press book in structure." (God forbid anything be academic...)
Striphas uses all these episodes to illustrate where we are right now, in the "late age of print." This does not mean a final stage in print culture, before we pass into a digital one. The printed book and digital versions, generally captured under the umbrella term "e-book," complement one another, in Striphas' mind, and I can see his point. This book is not heavy on the kind of on-the-ground argument we're used to hearing, on blogs and in industry publications, but instead is slightly more philosophical in argument with very on-the-ground examples - making for a useful book as we weigh changes that are happening everyday.
I appreciated how often Striphas knocks down notions many of us cling to, or rather complicates them. He problematizes our general demonization of big box stores. He makes a point to capture the past failures of e-books in many variations to take off. He won't let us just take a stand and run with it, but as any good scholar, he instead teases out the finer points. Perhaps some readers will find this frustrating, as if he's holding them back from strong feelings that will make change. I don't feel held back, however, just better informed. I see his point about big boxes, but I also find myself looking for hope when I hear about B&N closing stores in the future. Maybe indies will spring up in their place, and I can't help but think that will be better for communities. The reality is, smaller communities may not be able to support an independent bookstore, and without a B&N, people may just move online for book purchases.
So read the book, get educated, but stay angry - that's my short and sweet review of The Late Age of Print.